Last night I was working on the third Strange Angels book. I’d revised as far as one of the hidden hinges in the story–let me make an instructive little detour here.
In every story there are visible and hidden “hinges”–places where the particular bits of the story “hang,” for structure. The visible hinges are crisis points and revelations, easy enough to spot. The hidden hinges, however, are harder to see. This is partly because the hat-trick of writing depends just as much on what happens behind the curtain as it does on the visible excitements that make up the outer story.
It is also partly because the hidden hinges mean more to the author, if that is possible, than they can to the reader.
Okay, detour over. This particular hidden hinge was one I knew I had to expand on, but the first time around, in the heat of creation, I hadn’t known what to put there. I was going along in the particular, fierce but relaxed concentration of revision, and I suddenly reached the place where there was a “hole” in the manuscript. And I knew what to put in it. So I did, which just happened to bring me to 60K on the total wordcount, my goal for the night.
And then, sitting there and taking a deep breath, I burst into tears. Because the hidden hinge in this particular scene means a great deal to me, and touched a raw place.
The funny thing is that a reader will maybe spend a second or a second and a half reading this particular line, with no consciousness of how it affects me-the-writer. Their eyes will pass right over it, and that’s okay. It’s a hidden hinge, and not meant to be decorated to draw attention to its little self.
Here’s the important thing, though: I was terrified of writing it.
So much of writing is going where the fear is. Fear is power, and a lot of writers don’t want to go there. It’s absolutely natural. Who, after all, wants to be afraid or hurt? Feelings of fear or pain exist for a reason. They are warnings, and quite effective ones. They’re like the reflex that pulls your hand back before you realize you’ve touched something hot. (Gom jabbar notwithstanding. Ha.)
Harnessing that power, going where the fear is, writing even though your hands are sweating and your heart is in your mouth, is the very least you owe your readers. You have a bargain with them–you tell the truth, they keep reading. Lie, bullshit, pull back or cop out–and they sense it. They smell it. It will get your book thrown across the room faster than anything.
Your method of telling the truth may not work for some readers. They may not like how you do it, the words or the themes you choose. That’s okay. For the ones whose reception matches with your transmission, the ring of truth is what fulfills the bargain and keeps them coming back. It is far, far easier to find those fans who will love your stuff if you’re not bullshitting. Bullshit and punking out effectively close the gate before your horse has even left.
It breaks your legs before you can begin the race.
The temptation to punk out is huge, especially when it comes to hidden hinges. Why put something in that makes you cry or hurts you, reminds you of a failure or a heartache, when you know the reader’s eyes will pass right over it?
Because you’ll know. Because they’ll sense it. Because even if nobody knows you welshed on that part of the deal, you will and it’s still f!cking welshing. It betrays the Muse, it betrays your readers, and you betray yourself. If you don’t care about the first two you should care very much about the third, because you are the only person you will have to deal with 24-7 for the rest of your life. You will know.
Yes, the fear is there. It is overwhelming. Committing yourself to writing is just like committing yourself to anything worthwhile.
It will be painful. There will be blood.
I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see.
That’s Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And it’s also true.
Art is the transformation of the world. Transformation don’t come easy and it don’t come cheap, honey. Nothing worthwhile ever does. The fear will try every trick in the book to keep you from writing truly, to keep you “safe” and in the kiddie pool. It’s like the Internal Censor–it will not go away, and it thinks it’s helping you. It is–it’s helping to show you where the power is. But it does not help you if it makes you punk out or look away, even on the hidden hinges.
Find that fear. Face it down. Keep your eye on it and let it snarl at you all it wants. It’s only fear, after all, and with the Muse as chair and grammar as whip you can make it do all sorts of tricks. Commit yourself completely. Let there be blood on the page. Don’t stop. Don’t punk out. Run the fear, don’t let it run you.
Yes, it’s hard. But if this job was easy it wouldn’t be half as heart-in-mouth, adrenaline fun, now would it?
And now, excuse me. I’ve got to go bleed a little more.